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  • Writer's pictureMichelle Carchrae

Internal Family Systems Therapy

Updated: Dec 14, 2023

Is this popular style of therapy right for you? Here's a little background on IFS and a guided reflection process that can help you find out.

You might have heard of Internal Family Systems, or IFS, from a friend or content creator on social media. It’s become very popular over the past several years, to the point where the waiting list to join a Level 1 training through the IFS Institute had 7,000 people on it and the opportunity to apply for a training was awarded by a lottery system. Certified IFS therapists were booked solid with closed waiting lists. Whenever there’s a rush on something, we might wonder - do I want to try to get in on that? What’s there that is so appealing to everyone?

beautiful northern lights over a winter ocean and mountains

In order to determine whether IFS therapy is the right choice for you, it’s good to start with a bit of reflection on who you are and what your goals are for therapy. It’s also important to have enough background on the modality to be able to tell whether it’s going to be a good fit. This blog post can walk you through the process.

Is Internal Family Systems Therapy Right for Me?

Let’s start with some reflection on who you are and what your goals are for therapy. This is always a great first step no matter what kind of therapy you’re looking into. Here are some reflection questions that you can think through or journal about:

  • What’s the 5-10 word headline summary of what is bringing you into therapy? (ie: I’m angry about being criticised by my husband)

  • How do you think change happens for people?

  • What changes do you want to see happen as a result of doing therapy?

  • How often do you experience a sense of inner tension or conflict, such as wanting something but not taking steps towards it, or alternating between wanting to stay in or leave a relationship?

The Basics of IFS Therapy

Internal Family Systems therapy is founded on the idea that we all have multiple parts, or aspects of our personality, and these parts relate to each other internally in different ways. I have a part that loves chocolate cake, and another part that doesn’t want me to eat it. I have a little kid part that is afraid of getting in trouble from authority figures, and another part that manages my behaviour so that I follow the rules, minimising the chances I’ll be punished. IFS sees this multiplicity as a normal part of the human experience.

In IFS therapy, we’re engaging in a process of learning how to recognise these parts when they’re active, and building a sense of relationship with them as we get to know them. We can do this by ourselves, using resources like meditations and books. Or we can do this with the assistance of a therapist or coach. Or both!

What IFS Therapy Does Really Well

IFS is really well suited for dealing with the kinds of situations where we have inner conflicts or what people might call self-sabotaging behaviours. As we get to know our parts and what they’re doing, it quickly becomes clear that all parts believe that their behaviour is essential to our safety in one way or another.

Being able to see and hold whatever it is as an attempt at seeking safety can allow us to have compassion for that behaviour, even as we can very clearly acknowledge the ways that it holds us back or causes problems for us in another way. And curiosity and compassion towards ourselves is where the magic happens - at this point, things that were once stuck begin to flow.

IFS is also non-pathologising. This means that in general, IFS therapists tend to see whatever mental health diagnoses you might have as being not about you as a person, but more about a reflection of what experiences you’ve been through and the ways you needed to cope.

An IFS therapist will also be equally open, curious and welcoming to angry, suicidal, self-harming or addicted parts of you as they are to the hardworking, kind, polite or people-pleasing parts of you. This can be surprising to folks, but is a huge part of what makes IFS work.

Where People can Struggle With IFS

IFS is not necessarily a quick fix - developing awareness and relationships can take time. Sometimes people have one transformative session that really changes things for them, but more often it’s a process. This isn’t unique to IFS, as most therapy takes time to create change, but some other modalities are more explicit about having a short-term focus. The flip side of this is that IFS tends to create very stable, lasting change rather than a quick band aid solution that leaves an unhealed wound underneath.

Also, sometimes we might need some additional coping skills alongside traditional IFS. Depending on where you are in your life, it might be important to build safety and stability before we can really get to know parts. It’s hard to reflect internally when there is an immediate threat like being evicted, not having enough to eat or being in an abusive relationship.

Finally, IFS can be a radical shift of worldview. Western cultures tend to see people as unitary, meaning that we have a single personality that is consistent over time. We also tend to value external behaviour over our internal experience, and focus more on thoughts compared to emotions. Learning to recognise that as a cultural norm and not “the way things are” can take a bit of psychological flexibility.

So, is IFS Right for You?

Now’s the time to pull out your reflection questions again. Do you see any potential parts in your headline description of what’s bringing you to therapy, or in the tensions and contradictions present in your life? Are you mostly focused on crisis management right now? Anything surprising come up as you reflected on how you think change happens and what you want to see as a result of change in your life?

If you still have unanswered questions about all this, you’re welcome to book a free consultation call. We can look together at what you’re bringing in, and whether or not IFS might be the right approach for you.

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